When a Head of State is reported to be reading a certain book, not only does it become important to know what he is reading but also why he is reading it. The word is out that President George W. Bush during his summer holiday at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, is reading The Stranger. As non-presidents well know, this is not a US neo-conservative document that investigates the behaviour and habits of French ‘surrender monkeys’ during the final years of Jacques Chirac’s presidential term. This is one of Albert Camus’ existentialist masterpieces. So what gives? The protagonist, Mersault, is a happy-go-lucky guy — until he gets into a terrible soul-stirring scrap with some Arabs on a beach. He follows up this altercation by shooting dead one of the Arabs, after which he is arrested and sentenced to death. It is his contemplations about the possibility of having led a different life buttressed by the thought that people will celebrate his death that makes the story of Camus’ The Stranger.
While Mr Bush may have his fair share of existential crises to dole out in different corners of the globe, it is a bit of a surprise, especially for those lily-livered pinko liberals who only think of him reading the Bible or The Very Hungry Caterpillar (the abridged version), to find him reading Camus. But this is the man who last summer was reading a history of salt, a biography of Tsar Aleksander II and a book on the Great Influenza of 1918. So why is he reading The Stranger? Perhaps to get into the head of a fellow character who knows that despite his rather dodgy actions, he has done the right thing (and — with a wink from Camus that the President may or may not have detected — that it really doesn’t matter even if he has done the wrong thing). Or perhaps simply to read a slim book with a moderately big print.
Presidential and prime ministerial reading habits — like presidential and prime ministerial habits in general — are usually shadowy notions, filled in more by the public’s imagination than by official reading lists. One would, for instance, assume that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh curls up with David R. Howell’s Fighting Unemployment: The Limits of Free Market Orthodoxy. That he may actually be flipping through Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics may upset some — especially those who still swear by that collection impossible to carry along during holidays called Capital.